If We Knew Trans History, We Would Distrust Nostalgia

(Content warning: mention of Johnson’s death)

Many people have celebrated Marsha P. Johnson’s life.  They say that she was the first person who fight back that fateful night at the Stonewall Inn, and she likely was.[1]  Others admire the years she spend caring for queer and transgender youth living on Christopher Street.  Others point out that she was a revolutionary and she certainly was that.  She said in an interview, “We believe in picking up the gun if necessary.”  Johnson’s friends remember her laugh and her generosity of spirit.  Hers was a good life and it deserves to be remembered and to be held up as an example for activists today.  However, few of Johnson’s admirers are willing to think about the difficult parts of Johnson’s life, or the day that she died.

enhanced-buzz-28487-1371749259-34Johnson was famous within her lifetime. She was known within the New York LGBT community as “Saint Marsha,” the patron protector of the street youth of Christopher Street.  She was extravagant in her generosity, always ready to give the shoes on the feet and the dress off her back to someone who needed them.  She also sang as a member of the signing group the Hot Peaches and was photographed by Andy Warhol.  Yet despite the attention that lavished upon her, she remained poor, marginally housed, and vulnerable to police harassment and violence.  One has to wonder why more people did not reach out to care for the Saint of Christopher Street. [Photo description: Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, stands next to a screen print of her face produced by Andy Warhol.  She is wearing a fur coat, blue eye shadow, and feathers in her hair.  She is smiling.  The screen print shows her in a similar wig and outfit.]

As more and more people called Johnson a saint, was it inevitable that she would be martyred?  On July 6th, 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River.  She was 46 years old.  Police claimed that her death was a suicide,[i] but Johnson had been attacked on the pier previously and was seen being harassed earlier that day.[ii]  Sylvia Rivera was gutted by the loss of her friend and she did not believe for a minute that Johnson had killed herself.  She said that she couldn’t believe that Johnson would kill herself because Johnson had made her promise not to kill herself and pledged that they would “cross the river Jordan” together.[iii]

Friends and activists who knew Johnson urged the police department to investigate her death, but they were ignored.  It was not until 2012 that transgender activist Mariah Lopez successfully pressured the NYPD into re-opening the case.  However, it remains unsolved.[iv]

When I heard my fellow white activists wax romantic about Marsha’s involvement in Stonewall, I can’t help but wonder what we are doing to support Black trans women today.

Too many transgender women of color are treated like Marsha P. Johnson.  Many transgender women of color are tokenized as fashionable and courageous, even revolutionary, but they are then left to fend for themselves in a world that seems to want them dead.  Alok Vaid-Menon, a transgender South East Asian artist and activist, writes, “Here’s the thing: being fabulous doesn’t protect you.  Compliments don’t keep you safe.  The thing about being a trans feminine person is that everyone always remarks on how ‘fierce’ or ‘fabulous’ you are, but few people ask how you are getting home.”[v]  We must celebrate Johnson in a way that does not negate her vulnerability or the violence experienced by transgender women of color today. The death of Marsha P. Johnson is a powerful reason for transgender activists to consider how best to remember her.  What does it mean that such a prominent, beloved member of the New York City LGBT community would die in such tragic circumstances?  More importantly, what should transgender people do to support transgender women of color today who could all too easily meet the same end?

Trans historian and activist Reina Gossett writes, “Historical amnesia is starvation of the imagination; nostalgia is the imagination’s sugar rush, leaving depression and emptiness in its wake.  Breaking silences, telling our tales, is not enough. . . Historical responsibility has, after all, to do with action – where we place the weight of our existences on the line, cast our lot with others, move from an individual consciousness to a collective one.”[vi]  Marsha P. Johnson deserves to be remembered as the complex, courageous, vulnerable person she was.  She was a transgender women of color who survived and resisted oppression by creating radical communities of mutual support.  The best way to remember her is to follow her example, cast our lot in with transgender women of color, and follow their leadership.

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Support If We Knew Trans History on Patreon! [Photo description: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson look into the camera.  They appear determined.  Text reads: If We Knew Trans History is on Patreon!]

[i] Johnson’s friends in the Gay Rights Movement said that she was the first to resist when she threw a shot glass at a police officer who asked for her ID.  “I got my civil rights,” she declared.  The story of the “shot glass heard around the world” circulated in the New York queer and trans community for many years.

[i] Feinberg, Transgender Warriors, 131.

[ii] Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson.

[iii] Sylvia Rivera Reflects on the Spirit of Marsha P Johnson.

[iv] Jacobs, “DA Reopens Unsolved 1992 Case Involving the ‘Saint of Gay Life.’”

[v] Vaid-Menon, “#WhatIWantedToWear.”

[vi] Gossett, “Ten Posts for Sylvia Rivera’s Ten Year Memorial.”